Sunday, December 13, 2015

Campaigns on the Danube

If I were wrecked on a desert island and I could have only one period of wargame with me to play, it would almost certainly be a Napoleonic game. If I could have only one scale of game it would definitely be Operational - I find that it's at this level that the real artistry of command comes into play, coordinating maneuver, logistics, and tactics to bring about a desired conclusion on the battlefield.

It's quite possible then, if I had to pick a single computer wargame to have with me on my island, it would be Frank Hunter's Campaigns on the Danube.


Viewing the units of Lannes Corps during an 1809 scenario

This is not a new game. In fact, it's ten years old. Thanks to a recent patch from Mr. Hunter and a stunning new map and counter mod by Chemkid, the game looks and plays better than it ever has.

Davout's cavalry about to engage some cavalry and infantry from Kolowrat's corps.
I've owned the game for a few years, but there have always been little niggling things about it, that while not making the game unplayable made it less enjoyable. At the same time I didn't have a great understanding of Napoleonic warfare, particularly operations when I first bought the game. Now, years later courtesy of Frank's continued work and my own increased understanding of the period, I find the game to be absolutely a joy to play.

The actual battle about to begin. The tactical system is easy to grasp and the results easy to understand.
The easiest way for me to describe the game is to say it's Command Ops or Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm for the Napoleonic era. The game is not your traditional chit shuffler. Rather, as the overall commander you issue orders to subordinates, in the form of an objective, a stance (defend, engage, withdraw) and an urgency (from cautious to forced). These orders are then carried to the appropriate commands via messengers, and can take many hours to reach their destination - if they make it at all.

Lefebvre defends north of the Iser while Lannes pushes south along the Danube and Davout assaults Cham
Units are divisions or sometimes brigades in the case of cavalry. While it is possible to issue orders to each division individually, you really don't want to. Instead, orders are issued to the corps that make up your army. The corps commanders are actually very competent at deploying their troops to get their jobs done. I generally only issue commands to individual units if I want to detach some cavalry to scout or an infantry division to garrison an important location.

The Austrians are on the run after several engagements left most of their corps shattered. This time I've been more effective than Charles at concentrating my troops.
The friendly AI is quite good, but so is the enemy AI. After winning an early game quite handily I made some risky moves in my second game, thinking that I could catch the AI napping. Instead I found my troops being thrown back in disarray from a series of skillfully coordinated attacks that punished me for being over extended. It was only by pulling back and consolidating that I was able to avert disaster.

The end of the Austrian Army. Caught by Davout and Lannes against the Danube, there are nothing left but shattered corps as Charles tries to pull north across the river. Note that the weather has been raining for several days, and the map reflects mud conditions.
The game does a superlative job factoring in elements like weather and terrain. Fog of War is extreme in this game. You can even play in a mode where you don't know the exact location of your own units - the units you see on the map are the last reported location, not necessarily where they are now.

Campaigns on the Danube does for 18th century army command at the operational level what the Scourge of War games do for command at the tactical level. Orders move at the speed of a man on horseback, and by the time your orders reach your subordinate the situation may have changed so dramatically that they no longer make sense. Travel slows in bad weather and difficult terrain, making it difficult to coordinate the actions of two or more corps. Subordinates, closer to the actual situation, may not do what you ordered them to do.

There is also a very detailed logistics layer to the game. As the player you can choose to control every aspect of this or you can delegate most of it to the computer, focusing only on the macro decisions. The computer will intelligently place depots and send supply trains out to your corps, but you must determine the placement of your hospital and center of operations. Place them too close to the front lines and you run the risk of them being overrun, too far and your units will have too wait too long for supplies and can't fallback safely if retreating.

A resounding French victory
There is a lot to consider every turn in Campaigns on the Danube. The player does not lack for decisions to make, and these decisions are of greater import than the individual unit shuffling of most wargames. This is a complex game to master, and an excellent illustration of Napoleonic warfare. At the same time it is an easy game to play. Unit orders can be accomplished with just a few clicks each turn and feedback is obvious and complete. Frank Hunter has continued to revamp the UI based on player feedback over the years. While it isn't as slick as newer games the current UI is very functional for a game of this age.

Given the age of the game, I don't have much hope that Matrix or Mr. Hunter will ever release another game using this engine covering other campaigns of the period, but if they did I would buy it instantly. If the idea of playing a game as Napoleon or Charles, leaning over a map in your tent, sending messengers off to your corps appeals to you, the game is on sale during the Matrix holiday sale right now for just $9.99.